Ready to rebound: What enduring enthusiasm for exchange and employability means for international education

The international education sector is no stranger to shocks to student mobility.  In INTO’s 15-year history alone, global crises ranging from the Great Recession of 2008, to the 2012 MERS outbreak, to the 2014/15 drop in oil prices, have all affected mobility patterns.  However, market conditions have rebounded after each of these challenges, driven by study abroad aspirants’ enduring enthusiasm for cultural exploration, for personal and professional development; in short, for life-changing educational experiences. 

In June 2021, INTO conducted a global survey of international students who currently hold offers from our partner universities in the UK and the US, gauging their attitudes toward studying abroad in the context of COVID-19.  The vast majority of respondents indicated they were confident and excited to start their studies this autumn—proof that, whilst crises like the pandemic erect barriers to international student mobility, they do not quash demand.  Now more than ever, we must not lose sight of just how powerful students’ motivations to study abroad are, for it is those motivations that will serve as levers recovery in 2021 and beyond. 

International student sentiment surrounding study abroad 

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted gradually and the prospect of international travel slowly resumes, we asked international students to share their thoughts on studying abroad in 2021.  Of the 625 students from 80 countries who took part in the survey, 98% indicated they are excited to commence their studies this autumn.  Specifically, 52% indicated they are very excited and cannot wait to start, and 46% indicated they are a little anxious but still excited, leaving only 2% who are too anxious to think about travelling yet.  

These results corroborate findings from our prior investigation into international student sentiment surrounding study abroad during the pandemic.  In a survey carried out among 984 prospective international students in January 2021, we found that only 20% decided to forgo pursuing their study abroad plans altogether.  The remaining 80% planned to defer until they felt it was safe to travel.  

International student motivations to study abroad 

When it comes to motivations for overseas study amid the pandemic, 75% of the students we surveyed identified improving future career prospects as a primary reason for seeking an international degree.  The challenging career landscape that has emerged from the pandemic is not lost on foreign students.  More than high-quality teaching and learning alongside students from around the world, which 69% and 62% of respondents indicated as primary reasons to study abroad, respectively, international students hope to increase their chances of success in a job market where graduate recruitment has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, and where 300 million global graduates between 25 and 34 years of age will be competing for jobs by 2030. 

As a previous report from INTO, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) confirms, this is not the first time international students have shown drive to improve their career prospects in a moment of global crisis.  In response to the Great Recession of 2008, international students moved away from humanities programmes toward subjects such as health and computer science, for which students perceive stronger paths to employment.  Unshakeable in their determination, international students also contribute more than US$300 billion to the global economy. The figure stands at US$32 billion (or £21.6 billion) for the UK and US$38 billion for the US economy. 

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The outlook for international education in 2021 and beyond 

Digging deeper into what international students are excited to do during their education journeys, we found that 56% indicated they looked forward to meeting students from other parts of the world, and 40% indicated they wanted to experience a new culture.  In other words, students have an unfazed appetite for the tangible, irreplaceable elements of studying abroad. 

In light of the disruption caused by the pandemic, many commentators envision a new type of international higher education—one in which students no longer traverse continents to realise their ambitions but study online or at emerging, high-quality institutions in neighbouring countries.  

Whilst the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the emergence of these new models of international education, it has not put an end to the traditional model of students pursuing education abroad on physical campuses.  Far from it.  International students are more eager than ever for the opportunity to meet lifelong friends from different backgrounds, the sense of adventure gained by living in a different country and the development of intercultural understanding that translates into global workplaces. 

When the going gets tough, international students get going.  And it is their unending enthusiasm for exchange and enhanced employability that will drive recovery for the international education sector.  


Survey details:  

Prospective Student Survey: A total of 984 students – 16% of whom were from China – took part in the survey that was carried out in January 2021. 

Offer Holder Survey: A total of 625 students from 80 countries – including China, India, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia – took part in the survey that was carried out over the first week of June 2021. 

Dr. Parves Khan

Author: Dr. Parves Khan

Dr. Parves Khan is Vice President, Market Research and Insight, for INTO University Partnerships. Over a career that has lasted more than 25 years, she has run her own research consultancy, transformed the research and insight function at digital-first insurance company Ageas, and, most recently before INTO, led global research and insight at Pearson. Parves has been designated as one of the Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All by the Women Economic Forum (WEF), and she counts among Women in Data UK’s Twenty in Data and Technology 2020. She holds a BSc, Political Science and Government, from the University of Wales, Cardiff, and a PhD, European Union Integration, from the University of Bristol.

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